Writing Workshop Lesson 6: Setting

Workshop Introduction


In Lesson 1, we learned some of the factors that can make up the setting of the story. In this lesson we’ll go into each in more detail. Please note that you should avoid dropping large chunks of setting description (or character background) into your story. This is known as “info dumping” and can cause your reader to lose interest. You should sprinkle these details throughout your story in a natural manner. Remember, just because you know every little detail does not mean your reader needs to know it.

Physical Geography

The physical location of your story can either be entirely invented, such as another planet, or it can be based in whole or in part on a real location.

If your location is entirely invented, you will need to resort to some level of “world-building” which can be very complicated and difficult. At the minimum, you’ll want to draw a map of your world to keep the details and specific locations consistent. You don’t need to worry about drawing a map of sufficient quality to be included in the final manuscript, but it will need to be good enough for you to refer to it as you write.

But world-building isn’t restricted to science fiction and fantasy. Even if your location is based on a real city, if you invent any streets or buildings, you’ll want to map them out to keep them straight in relationship to each other, and to things that truly exist.

If your location is based on a real place, you can invent details within that place (a restaurant that doesn’t exist in the real world) but you should keep major details consistent with reality. If you set your story in New York City, you can invent entire buildings that don’t exist, but the city had better be on the east coast of the US unless you provide the reader with a plausible explanation for why it’s not.

If you decide to use a real place, include mundane details in your story that aren’t easily accessible to tourists, like local neighborhood cafes. You want to come across as an authority on this location, not just a tourist guide.

Time Period

You can set your story at any point in time, but if your geographic location is somewhere in the real world and you’re not writing speculative fiction, you’ll need to keep the details consistent with what actually happened at that period.

Depending on the period, this could require a large amount of research. You don’t want anachronistic details throwing your readers off and making them lose faith in the rest of your story. Google is a huge help in this regard, allowing you to search for farmers’ almanacs for weather details, pictures of old newspaper ads for prices and technology of the time, etc. You can also look for “Remember When” yearly books for information about trends, fads, prices, and other information for a specific year.

Stories set in the future have much more leeway, even just a few years into the future. But the details should still ring true to the reader and seem plausible.

Political System

As with the other components of setting, you can choose to use an existing political system, or make one up. You can set your story in modern America and use the two-party democratic system of government. You can set your story on a distant planet with a dictatorship. You can create a fantasy world with kings and knights.

If you use an existing political system, be sure to get the details right, or readers may notice. If you create a political system, make sure that the rules for governance have some logical basis, or you could lose the reader’s faith in the world and system you’ve created.

Level of Technology

A story set in the Stone Age of earth should not have characters using bronze knives unless some amount of time travel is involved. Be sure that the level of technological advancement is suitable to the other aspects of your story’s setting.

Economic System

The economic system of a society is often closely connected to its political system. If your world involves a representative democratic government, they probably wouldn’t engage in a barter system. By the same token, if you have feudal lords, the common people wouldn’t have much money to spend on luxuries. If you base your political/economic system on real-world examples, be sure to research the details to keep it believable to your reader.

Modes of Transportation and Dress

A futuristic setting should have suitably futuristic vehicles and clothing. If there has been a nuclear holocaust, for instance, vehicles may be out of commission and your characters may need to wear radiation suits whenever they go outside. If your setting is Victorian England, your characters should travel by horse-drawn coaches and the occasional train, unless you’re writing Steam Punk.

Speech Patterns and Mannerisms

This can be the trickiest part of setting. If you’re writing about a historical period, there may be little material to help you determine if a particular bit of slang was used then. If you are unsure, you’re better off keeping to standard grammar. If your story is set in the future, you have the leeway to make up your own slang, as long as you provide enough surrounding context that the reader can pick up on its meaning.

As noted in Lesson 1, be careful of using dialects in your work; this is very difficult to pull off successfully. If you use too much, your reader has trouble following along. Pick a few key words or phrases that provide an idea of how the character speaks, and let the reader’s imagination fill in the rest. A couple of examples include William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and J. K. Rowling’s Hagrid in the Harry Potter series.

Exercise 1

Describe a physical setting in your story. Use all five senses, and make your reader experience the setting as if he or she were there.

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